By Rev. Dr. Robert McTeigue
Some statements are conversation-stoppers. For example: “The building is on fire—RUN!” People hear that, stop talking, and start running. Some statements are conversation-starters. For example: “I know where the buried treasure is!” People hear that, stop what they’re doing and say, “Tell me more.”
What if the statement were: “You know what we need to make progress in conversations about Eurasian perspectives? We need an American!” Would people stop what they’re doing, listen expectantly, or would they shake their heads, chuckle, and get back to business?
At the invitation of editor-in-chief, David Parry, I’m going to contribute an American voice to the ongoing conversations here at Eurasian Perspectives. I will do so as an American academic who has travelled and taught in Southeast Asia, who has studied Asian philosophy, religion and culture; I will also do so as an academic who has lived in London, who has travelled about Europe, who has studied European philosophy, religion and culture. And I will do so as a member of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious community known for producing missionaries and educators—a community with a long history of life and work across Asia for almost 500 years.
It is a commonplace among academics, to engage, at least occasionally, on the topic of “East meets West”, discussing how misunderstandings might be overcome, points of agreement may be found, new discoveries made, etc. That approach may be congenial to academics, and one can make a nice career out of publishing obscure papers on points of cultural minutiae. But what of the more typical person, who may be just as intelligent and curious as professional scholars, who don’t have the time or interest to become a specialist in a narrow area of research? Is there any way for the question of “East meets West” to be made accessible, interesting, even useful?
I believe there is. My research and travels lead me to conclude that we here at Eurasian Perspectives can begin a valuable cross-cultural conversation using the common experience of board games as a point of departure. This is not an entirely new suggestion. Decades ago, William Pinckard published an essay now recognized as a classic in the field: “Go and the ‘Three Games’.” There he discussed why the game of Go (“Igo” in Japanese; “Weiqi” in Chinese; “Baduk” in Korean) was revered in Asia—especially Japan; why chess (now called “international chess” worldwide) was revered in Medieval Europe; why backgammon was revered in the Near and Middle East. His principal thesis was that these games both formed and disclosed the cultures in which they enjoyed popularity.
I want to build upon Pinckard’s insight, making use not only of board games but also of martial arts, to gain an understanding of how cultures are formed and disclosed by these practices. In our interconnected world, these board games are played across the globe, just as Asian martial arts have taken root outside of their native soil. What I have in mind here is to start a conversation that will allow us to see how cultures develop, blend and endure over time. I would also like to take note where there are areas of cultural overlap and complementarity, as well as points of differences not easily (perhaps not ever) reconciled.
Preparing to work in Asia for the first time, I studied a variety of Asian board games, including Go, Shogi, Xiangqi, Mahjong and Paigow. I added to this a very modest study of Asian martial arts, along with many conversations with martial arts practitioners. Returning to the United States, I had many happy memories, a few more answers, and many more questions. I share these reflections with you all here, in the hopes that we can begin a conversation about human nature and the common and disparate features of various cultures. My hope is that our readers will want to add to the foundation that I lay down here.
I became very interested in the status of Weiqi and Xiangqi in China, as a way of understanding how board games may form and disclose cultures. In the United States, international chess is being promoted in many schools. There’s a body of research indicating that students improve greatly academically when they study and play chess. Is Weiqi or Xiangqi or both promoted in Chinese schools? Is there research supporting a decision to include one or both in schools?
What is the status of Weiqi relative to Xiangqi in Chinese culture? In the West, generally speaking, international chess is considered an “intellectual” pursuit and its players are considered highly intelligent. There’s not much money in it if you play in the United States (I hear it’s better in Europe), but it is a respectable game.
What I have in mind is to draw an analogy with Chinese internal martial arts (Neijia). I’ve been told that one can develop a Tai Chi body and state of mind, or a Hsing-I body and state of mind or a Bagua body and state of mind. Do Weiqi, Xiangqi and international chess, by analogy, develop states or habits of mind and cultures that are unique to them?
If I were to force the analogy, I’d say that Weiqi is like Tai Chi, emphasizing patience and fluid movements. International chess is like Hsing-I with its direct lines of attack and its emphasis on control of the center. Xiangqi is like Bagua with its emphasis on maneuver, while guarding a fixed point. So understood, what effects to the play of board games and martial arts have upon individuals, communities, regions and cultures?
Xiangqi appears to be a game for the “masses.” For example, Sam Sloan, in “Chinese Chess for Beginners” says: “In fact, there is simply no such thing as a Chinese man who does not know how to play Chinese chess. It is embedded in the Chinese culture. Chinese children learn how to play it at the same age when children in other cultures are learning how to play tic-tac-toe.”(Sloan, page 2)
In contrast, in “Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them”, Edward Falkener suggests that Weiqi in Chinese culture is considered a game for the “elite.” A person who seriously plays Weiqi would be expected to be a person of achievement and refinement in China. He writes of a Mr. Giles, who was a British Consul in China in the late 1800s and was a Weiqi player, who asserted: “None but the educated play at Wei-ch’i. A knowledge of this difficult game stamps a man in China as somewhat more than an ordinary person. Its subtleties are beyond the reach of the lazy; its triumphs too refined for the man of gross material tastes. Skill in Wei-ch’i implies the astuteness and versatility so prized among the Chinese. They could hardly believe a man to play Wei-ch’i well, and yet be possessed of only indifferent abilities as a practical man of the world. It would amount to a contradiction of terms. All the more so, as nearly all those who enter upon a literary career make a point of attempting to learn the game; but many faint by the way. To a beginner a mere knowledge of the rules for a long time seems hopeless: and subsequent application of them more hopeless still. The persevering ones play on day by day, until at last—suddenly as it were—the great scheme of Wei-ch’I dawns upon them in all its fullness and beauty; and from that day they are ardent enthusiasts in support of its unquestionable merits.” (Falkener, page 249)
It has been suggested to me that in China Weiqiis considered more difficult and more in tune with the Confucian ideal of the cultivated man. A cultivated man would practice the “Four Accomplishments”, namely, painting, music, calligraphy and Weiqi. Is there anything analogous to Xiangqi in Chinese classical literature?
Also, it has been suggested to me that Weiqi is more a Mandarin-speakers’ game, while Xiangqi is associated more with Cantonese speakers. Is that true? If so, what bearing does that fact have on their respective cultures?
A quick search online shows Xiangqi sets made of plastic or wood with paper boards are quite inexpensive and emphasize functionality. Weiqi equipment available online, I have found, can be both quite beautiful and quite expensive. Can this difference between the two games be taken as a sign of differing social status?
We can apply similar questions to international chess, which has enjoyed popularity in the West for centuries. More stimulating questions can be raised if we consider what happens when a game is transplanted to another culture. For example, in recent years, international chess has been played at the highest levels in China, which has produced several grandmasters, and Chinese players have dominated the Women’s World Champion Chess Championship. Can we speak of a distinctively Chinese way of playing/understanding international chess?
To a lesser degree, there have been efforts to popularize Go in the West, with America producing professionally-ranked Go players. Is there a distinctively Western way of playing/understanding Go?